Do you think in English or Spanish?
This is a question I am frequently asked. To be honest, I don’t know how to answer. If I’m having a conversation in Spanish, it stands to reason that I must be thinking in Spanish. If I weren’t, then I would be translating everything the other person said to English, thinking of the response in English and then translating it back to Spanish. It seems like that would take a long time. So long, that surely someone would get up to go get another copa de vino or glass of wine, as the case may be.
Last night when I was asked this question (in Spanish), I said, “I don’t think I think in words.” To which the person I was speaking to said, “that’s crazy, of COURSE you think in words.” Is it? Do I? I don’t think so. I mean, what if I ask him if he spells correctly when he is thinking the words, then what would he say? “I don’t think in print, I think in words I think about”? In what form do you think about them? Do they sound like something in your head? What does it look like to think in a word? And how do you know which meaning of the word it is, if it’s the actual word you think of, not the meaning? If it’s muñeca, for example. Doll or wrist? Bank, place for money or side of a river?
I’m not being pretend facetious. I really don’t understand. Do you think you think in words? Do I think in words and not know it? Does it feel different to think in English or Spanish? Can I not think in two languages at the same time?
One thing I will say is that when I am speaking Spanish to someone and they suddenly throw in an English word in with Spanish phonetics (happy hour, headhunter, etc), I usually have no idea what they are saying. I may not be thinking in Spanish, but I am definitely listening in Spanish (one point for Spanish thinking, if we assume that thinking and listening, those two silent processes are somehow related, in that they take place inside my opaque head). However, people speaking English near me when I am having a Spanish conversation is more distracting than people speaking Spanish near me when I am speaking in English, which I think is a point for thinking in English. But I get the feeling that this is about phonetics. I know which sounds belong in which language. English words said with Spanish phonetics sound like gibberish to me the first time I hear them, unless the person is already speaking English with Spanish phonetics, in which case I’m primed for it.
Something similar happens when I read words that could be in either language. For example red (English: the color red, Spanish, net), or taller (English: greater in height, Spanish: workshop, see photo above). If I hear them, I know immediately which they refer to, because of the pronunciation. But when they are written, I will on occasion, read them the wrong way. At the Y near my sister’s house on Long Island, one year when I was there, they were putting on the show Evita, and upon seeing the sign “Evita Saturday,” I thought to myself “you cannot avoid Saturdays, and further, why would you want to?” (Evitar=to avoid in Spanish). Evitar is a more common word than Evita (Perón). Or maybe I was “thinking in Spanish” when I read it that way? I’m still not convinced that my thinking is language-specific, or at least cemented to a particular language. Are you?
Then what about pre-linguistic babies? Do they not get to think things, because they have no words to hang their thoughts on? Or is the “think in words” thing only related to concepts that maybe don’t have a physical representation, like hate or global warming?
This is not the only thing I have been thinking about since we last spoke. Next up: what the hell does it mean to be a cuico, anyway, including great gales of laughter when one friend suggests that perhaps I occasionally read as a cuica in Chile because I am one in the United States.
How funny. Because I have a workshop, and use “taller” all the time, I did not see the English word at all! Just couldn’t see tall-er. I have asked my oldest daughter how she thinks, and she says she actually sees the words when people talk. Both my daughters think in Spanish, but the youngest speaks more English.
While my mom was visiting, and I spoke more English, I found there were words I forgot in English, and I sometimes used Spanish grammar with English words.
Some words are just so perfect in their own language, you can’t translate them. Of course I can’t think of an example at the moment!
Qué buena pregunta.
Es un tema que me gusta mucho, hasta tengo una teoría personal al respecto, y es que nuestras mentes no hacen diferencia.
¿Por qué? Por que cuando manejas más o menos idiomas, tu cerebro asocia nuevas palabras para un mismo significado, expandiendo más bien ideas, que palabras en específico. Así, de la misma forma que en un país frío hay 100 palabras para describir la nieve y una sola para un día caluroso, y lo contrario ocurre en un país tropical, simplemente expandimos y enriquecemos las opciones disponibles para un concepto.
Por ejemplo, en español solamente, conocemos la palabra “dinero”. En Chile, le puedes también llamar “plata”, en Argentina “guita”, y cuando averiguamos que en inglés puedes decir “money”, “cash”, un otras, aumentamos las palabras asociadas, y una parte de nuestras mentes le asocia un contexto.
De esa forma, el cambio de contexto permite, si se manejan suficientes conceptos asociados con fluidez, tener una línea de pensamiento en un idioma u otro.
Acá es donde mi teoría, al menos para mí, funciona (puede que otra persona piense de otra forma o que esté equivocado), pero como bien dices tú, no pienso precisamente en palabras, si no más bien en sensaciones. Es decir, cuando estuve en EEUU y aprendí la palabra “rain”, por ejemplo, en mi mente recuerdo por un milisegundo cómo es la lluvia allá en el lugar donde aprendí el concepto, y es una lluvia que se siente diferente de la lluvia en español, que para mí es la que acostumbra caer en Temuco.
Es decir, no se hace un vínculo entre las palabras, si no entre las palabras y los conceptos, que en nuestra mente son más bien sensaciones y recuerdos. Por ello, uno perfectamente puede “pensar en inglés” o “pensar en español” casi simultáneamente, y eso hace que la mente le juegue a uno algunas bromas, como lo que te pasó con “Evita Saturday”.
Creo que eso explica que sin quererlo, haya personas que hablen en “spanglish”, por esa mezcla de asociaciones y precisión; imagino que si estoy en Miami, por ejemplo, diría “Necesito información sobre esto, así que necesito ir al Town Hall”, por que en realidad no es una municipalidad, y no habría forma mejor de describirlo, así que mi mente tomaría prestado lo que mejor se acomodara a lo que quiero decir, pensar o transmitirle al otro.
I sometimes think in English, and am translating, and sometimes think in Spanish. I think it tends more towards the latter over time depending on your level. In fact, having been an English teacher once, I am almost sure of it. (There may also be an in between where you are thinking in Spanish words but with underlying English sentence construction?)
It varies, and I am not sure, but I would generally think in terms of the essence of an idea, and then search for a word to meet the essence of what I want to say. The fundamental truth of this lies in the fact that we learn shapes, objects, and have feelings, long before we even have the ability to speak. As I child, you have to learn words to match what you already feel and think.
When someone native tries to speak English to me unexpectedly, especially a lone word in the middle of a Spanish sentence, it’s the same I am not tuned to expect it, I am on a different wavelength, and they can say it well (but not perfectly) and I won’t get it. Embarassing for everyone.
Another thing I can do in Spanish is turn on and off the listening. If I am sat in a room of people talking and need not to be distracted to concentrate on something, I can choose not to hear it, and tune it out. Same with TV. I assume this ability will go away with time as I get better.
It’s a really interesting question and I agree with the comments above, especially when it comes to the way children learn about concepts, abstract ideas, shapes, among other things, BEFORE we can actually speak our first words. That’s why I think we learn to “think” in a language in order to make sense of the world and the reality we live in (Maybe to simplify our vision of our complex world).
However, I don’t know if we can say that “we think in a language all the time”. Sometimes, in my humble opinion, our brain retrieves an image first or maybe a sound and in order to make that association easier for ourselves and the rest of the world, we try to come up with the exact word to refer to that term. That association might be easier for really specific concepts like “apples” or “a book,” but things get a little more complicated when we try to think of an abstract concept like “love,” I think than when trying to define abstract concepts like that, our definition or “thought” will depend entirely on our own experience of the concept and the way the perceive reality.
You think. That’s all that matters.
It makes no difference to intelligence or brain function power what path the information stored in your neurons takes in order to get to the cognitive zones of your brain. It’s like asking a computer whether using Firefox or Chrome is “better” for reading the internet. It’s not quite asinine, but it’s down that path all right.
A language is a skill, nothing else. It gets a little mystified and overblown at times because it’s a skill we develop very early when our brains store and form information in a different way. But it’s skill, it’s a thought process, it’s not a thought.
Cuando escribo y se me arranca alguna palabra o frase en inglés, generalmente no es porque haya estado formando la idea en inglés, sino porque estaba intentando escribir algo rápidamente y la palabra en inglés era más corta o requería menos esfuerzo. Así que inicialmente estaría de acuerdo con Marmo arriba en eso de que no son dos modos de pensar distintos sino una ampliación en la forma de expresión de las ideas.
Dicho eso, también puedo ignorar el inglés cuando lo necesito, pero no puedo dejar de entender español, ni siquiera cuando el acento es confuso… :/
I’m with Marmo on this one, i don’t think we “think” in a given language. We use concepts that are more or less abstract and independent from the language.
My son is only 1.5 years old and he understands his mom and me despite the fact that we use two different languages to communicate with him. And whenever I speak norwegian to him, he gets a little bit confused but in the end he understands what I say. It is as if I’m not suppose to use norwegian 🙂
Whenever he tries to say something he usually defaults to norwegian, although he can use a few spanish words.
I just had a related incident yesterday. I could not understand why someone had written herself a workout on the whiteboard with the title “Gaby (cheaper)”. Why is Gaby less expensive? The workout didn’t look like a particularly easy one that could be consider to be the low rent version of something else. I only got it after I read through it, thought “that’s a chipper” (a type of workout) out loud in my head (if that makes sense) and realized that it was a case of Spanish pronunciation of English words leading to a misspelling.
Regarding the actual question, I remember a linguistics class in college that went into the idea that evolutionarily, hominids’ brain size increased as their language use increased, which could indicate more thought comes through language to express those thoughts. I definitely don’t think in written words and do think in two languages, but I can see how more complex or abstract thoughts could be limited by language.
Me ocurrió hace algunos años, cuando preparaba mi “Memoria” de titulación, que tuve que leer muchas sentencias en inglés, una tras otra, y asimilar conceptos que no tenían equivalentes en español, o en Chile… largas lecturas, largos silencios, mucho inglés, sólo inglés…
Al rato, cuando me hacían alguna pregunta, tardaba un momento en darme cuenta que estaba formulando la respuesta en inglés, si bien terminaba contestando en español, si notaba quie había un proceso funcionando en el cerebro que debía desconectarse para que se conectara el otro… y eso demoraba un momento…
Tras mucho inglés, si estaba pensando en inglés, y tenía que readaptarme a mi propio español…
I, too, have had endless discussions about this.
I’ve heard this question so many times here in Finland, at some point I just sarted to answer either “I think in pictures” or “I see films in my head”.
Depending on what, where and why something is happening and who are the ones involved in my head, do they speak Spanish, Finnish, English or Swedish. And adding to that, I’ve spent so much time on the Internet over the years, that at some point I would be, in my mind, typing the words I was thinking.
Anyway, answering “I think in pictures” makes people stop for a moment and then most of them go.. “I TOO!”. I do not think they actually think about what the question means before they open their mouths and ask it. It’s like there is this battery of questions you think you _have to ask_ to every bilingual person that comes across.
In addition to the thinking question you’ve got your “do you feel Chilean or Finnish” and “which country do you like the most”. My answer to both of them is a conversation ending “no”, but I always try to smile, because you know, it’s not like they ask these questions on purpose. It’s the well-meaning-not-thinking-it-through habit people tend to have.
For me, it depends. I consider myself a beginner Spanish speaker (like basic conversation). For words and phrases I am super familiar with, I don’t have to think about it, I can hear the question in Spanish and answer in Spanish. For those that I am not as familiar with, or if it’s a longer conversation, I have to think about it, translate it in my head, think about my answer, translate my answer, and then say it out loud. It can happen really quickly, or I sit there with a blank look on my face and the person asks again or in a different way lol 🙂
Depends situation and the people whom i surrounded by at that moment, i think. Dutch is my mother tongue, but I studied and worked for long time in English. Nowadays I’m working in the Caribbean with Dutch and Papiamento as official languages. So at work i am used to speak/write in Dutch and also think in Dutch about cases. But my husband (which is Chilean) and the rest of my friends and i speak English/ Papiamento mixed up with some Spanish and Dutch words. (Most locals in Caribbean speak 4 languages) and i think in the languages that i’m speaking at that moment.
When i want to talk to colleagues about something that happened in my private life, i notice i’m looking for the right words to tell the story in Dutch. That is the moment i need to translate..
And obviously a lot of words can’t be translated. Example;
Gezellig. Dutch people use it all the time. (including my husband.. ow yesterday was a ‘gezellige’ evening). Not found a word to compare with yet..
It sounds like the kind of thing that would cause you nostalgia for a sense of belonging and coziness if it had happened yet. Toughie! Thanks for commenting. So I take it you’re in Aruba? I almost went (on the way to Suriname), but still haven’t been. One day I’ll make it, and hope that if I’m lucky, I might have a gezellige evening!